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  • Writer's pictureCrone

And Easter Sunday gets a poem too

The Windhover To Christ Our Lord

I caught this morning morning's minion, king-       dom of daylight's dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding       Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,       As a skate's heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding       Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding Stirred for a bird, – the achieve of, the mastery of the thing. 

Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here       Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!        No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,       Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermilion.

Another poem written by my hero GMH, after Friday's post considering 'Hurrahing in Harvest!'. This one is regarded as a masterpiece and it's the first one that students tend to examine. It is even more rich and multilayered, with resonances and inferences, suggestions and sleights of hand. Again, the use of language is creative and innovative, with some archaic words introduced and words used in unexpected ways. This is the sort of poem that you can enjoy superficially but which rewards a deeper reading and consideration.

And there's a reading of the poem here.

One aspect I'd like to bring up is the use of chivalric imagery. One of the founders of the Jesuit order was St Ignatius of Loyola, the Soldier-Saint. He trained as a knight within the traditional code of chivalry - horsemanship and swordship, for example - as well as the romantic love for an unattainable lady, though that's not relevant here. He brought some of that strength and masculinity into his religious thinking after his conversion, and the idea of 'Soldiers of Christ' or 'Christ as a Soldier' have their origins, as I understand it, with him. GMH was a Jesuit and was thus strongly influenced by this tradition.

Oh, and the subject matter. A windhover is a kestrel. (Yes, I know that the image is a peregrine falcon not a kestrel - but it's the closest I have.) And watching these birds defy physics in their flight is a wonderful experience. In fact, Iris Murdoch uses this experience as her iconic image of the power of phenomenology. She recounts how she was sitting at her desk, frustrated and brooding over some slight she'd endured, when she saw through the window a kestrel hovering. She watched and was drawn utterly into the moment, all sense of ego lost in the watching of another creature, an experience somehow visceral and transcendent. When the bird flew away and she 'came back to herself', she says that all her petty concerns seemed less important. The act of being drawn into attending to the bird so completely somehow loosened the binding to the ego-concern.

For GMH this experience is further magnified as he is drawn into attending to Christ's greatness through the act of attending to the bird.

Let's get to it.

Note first how no line ends with an end-point punctuation until 'swing' in line five - that gives the opening real momentum and a kind of rolling, sweeping speed that encapsulates the movement of the bird as it is described. The rhythm is also accelerated and emphasised by the repetition of 'morning' and by the alliterative lists. The motion builds to 'In his ecstasy!' and then there is the pause as the bird changes course - the bird's progress is beautifully articulated in the rhythm and pace of the poetry.

'Caught' offers various suggestive meanings: caught sight of, obviously, but also that the image is reeled in, captured by the poet's mind - this is suggested by the choice to omit the words 'sight of' and use just 'caught'. The word also sound like court - which is relevant as the bird is described in chivalric terms - kingdom and dauphin. In this context, minion might be surprising as one thinks of it as meaning an underling, but GMH was great on linguistic etymology and this word also carries the meaning of 'highly favoured one'.

'Dapple-dawn drawn' offers the pattering of the bird and of the sky and also encourages the concept of regal progress, a kind of procession. 'Riding' suggests at the way the bird is carried by the wind, but also adds to the chivalric theme by bringing horsemanship to mind. While 'striding' is another word redolent of magisterial progress. All emphasise the bird's command of its environment - and as he is 'kingdom of daylight's dauphin', the Prince of Heaven, we get the sense of Christ's mastery too (the dedication makes this explicit).

The end of line pause between ‘striding’ and ‘High there’ draws attention to the spatial dimension. And then we have this interesting image – ‘he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing’. The immediate analogy is to a horse on a lunge line, moving in a circle – again this enriches the equestrian theme – but ‘rung’ is a notable choice of word. The idea of a bell comes to mind – which is later reinforced when he uses the word ‘told’ which sounds like ‘tolled’. This may appear to be pulling imaginary rabbits out of a hat, but for me it brings to mind another of his poems in which the words swing and ring are related to a bell (of course a priest would be very familiar with bells) and the way in which every bell has its own unique sound. That sound is immanent (inscape – see the analysis of ‘Hurrahing in Harvest!’) until it is rung (instress), which is when its precious gift of self-ness is exposed in the world and made conscious. ‘Wimpling’ suggests the folded nature of wings and also the headdresses (wimples) of nuns, though wimples were also worn by court ladies in previous eras.

‘In his ecstasy’ gets extra weight and force through the enjambement (it runs on from the sense of the previous line), leading, as I said, to the slight pause, change of mood and direction, for ‘then off’. We enter another sweeping passage, rich in visual stimuli – the swing, the skate’s heel (so we focus on the curve produced not on the image of a skater) and the bend of a bow, as in a bow and arrow – more chivalric connotations. The world hurl suggests great force, like an arrow shot from a bow, while gliding calls to mind the arc of flight – and through this the bird ‘Rebuffed the big wind.’ It can overcome the elements.

Now a climax – ‘My heart in hiding / Stirred for a bird, the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!’ The hidden heart suggests how, like Iris Murdoch, GMH was stuck in thought and abstracts until this scene pulled him out of himself. The assonance of ‘Stirred for a bird’ is effective – especially as there is a kind of wonder in it. For a bird? A tweetie-pie? Really? But the bird represents this mastery, this sublime achievement. The use of the unusual term ‘the achieve of’ makes the sense more emphatic than just ‘achievement’ – and it changes the meaning somewhat. The bird is in the process of being, it is always in this act of achieving. It is also, as itself, a wonderful achievement of nature, a supreme example of God’s creation being perfectly suited to its environment. It has mastery – both in the way that a master craftsman has mastery, but also in that it is a master of its life, its action, its way of being.

The next three lines take the thought to an even greater emotional level. The rhythmic force of the list of monosyllabic words (instead of longer words and compound phrases in the opening sections) is like a drumbeat. ‘Brute beauty’ implies both that this is an animal, but also the great force and power in the beauty – as with ‘barbarous in beauty’ in the previous poem. Valour gives us the chivalry idea again. ‘And act’ – this is the world in action, not thought, physical, not abstract. The idea of a living Christ not a dead idea.

‘Buckle’, like ‘In his ecstasy’ stands alone and is given power – and the choice of the word is fascinating. We are being directed to the sudden movement of the dive – the sweeping movement takes a right angle. But there’s also the sense of something buckling under pressure, that breaking and crashing down. In addition, there’s a suggestion of joining, connection, buckled together. There is a sense of breach, of the cracking open of reality and bursting forth of the sublime. This is the next climax. And GMH exclaims at this transcendent moment – as in watching a brilliant, martial angel dive toward earth – ‘the fire that breaks from thee then’. The kestrel is like a comet, a shooting star, a flaming arrow. The two ideas brought in by brute beauty are repeated in ‘lovelier, more dangerous’. Then the explicit ‘O my chevalier!’ with its Christ as a soldier concept. The danger poses to sinners, to the ungodly. There is passion and adoration here as well as awe – almost as if we are with a lady watching her knight.

The final three lines are a reminder that one should not wonder at the glory of the world being seen in a bird, albeit a predatory and magnificent one, for it is apparent in everything – everything is an example of God’s beneficence. Hard word, the work of the farmer, the ordinary man, not the chevalier, makes the cut earth shine. Sillion refers to the lines in a ploughed field. The final image strikes me as especially powerful. You see the charred remains of a fire, ‘blue-bleak’ (the first explicit colour reference in a poem of such startling visual riches!), but, when they break open, they are ‘gold-vermilion.’ What really stands out here is that the embers ‘fall’ (think of The Fall), gall themselves (gall means bitterness) and gash (with the implications of a wound). So here GMH is saying that not just arduous work can bring an awareness of beauty, but also the most intense despair and suffering. In everything, proof of God’s love, of the salvation offered by Christ, is immanent.

The use of the informal and affectionate phrase ‘ah my dear’ maybe acts as a reminder to himself, to give himself hope and encouragement in his crises of faith. He advises himself to accept the work of the religious life and the pain of his doubts in the promise that, as at Easter – and maybe even after this pandemic- love and life will return.

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